Rank-and-file workers at Creature Comforts Brewing Co. in Athens have formed the Brewers Union of Georgia and are awaiting a decision from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on who’s eligible to vote before scheduling a union election.
Workers announced their union in mid-January and have since been garnering community support and pushing for the election. But there has been push-back from Creature Comforts management, leading the new Brewers Union of Georgia (BUG) to file four unfair labor charges with the NLRB against the company since January.
Atlanta Civic Circle spoke with Creature Comforts’ brand marketing manager, Katie Britton, one of BUG’s organizers, to find out why the workers are trying to unionize.
Creature Comforts has expanded rapidly in the last few years, which has placed strains on its small staff of 120, causing higher turnover and burnout, Britton said, adding that workers’ responsibilities have increased because hiring hasn’t kept up. They’re advocating for a clearer structure around job titles and duties so work doesn’t pile up.
The workers also want better pay and working conditions. Britton said people working in the beer brewing industry often put up with lower pay and subpar conditions because working at a brewery is a “dream job” for many.
“How do we come together, give people more of a voice, and make everything better for everyone?” said Britton. “That’s when we said ‘Oh, a union’.”
Creature Comforts, which started in 2014 as a small, community-focused brewer in Athens, has recently opened a Los Angeles location. “We expanded to five or six new distribution markets, bringing on new customer bases, and we’ve been working on the LA opening for a few years now,” said Britton. “That created more and more work for people, without any more support on hiring.”
Getting a union election
After announcing the formation of the union in January, BUG’s organizers asked Creature Comforts’ management to voluntarily recognize it and begin contract negotiations. Management refused, and workers are now seeking a union election and formal certification from the NLRB, after getting union buy-in from over 30% of the rank-and-file workers–one of the NLRB’s election rules.
For the election to happen, the NLRB must approve the make-up of the election unit, which can only be rank-and-file workers, not supervisors or owners. The Brewer’s Union of Georgia submitted a list of 73 production, maintenance and taproom employees, but Creature Comforts has disputed it, alleging some are actually supervisors. The NLRB held a hearing, and once it rules on who’s eligible to vote, BUG can schedule the union election.
Meanwhile, union organizers have been drumming up community support to put pressure on Creature Comforts’ management. They’re working with the Economic Justice Coalition in Athens, a non-profit organization that organizes and advocates for better wages.
The Brewers Union of Georgia has also received a letter of support from state Rep. Spencer Frye (D-Athens). “BUG as a worker-led union captures the perspective and character of Creature Comforts as well as the values of the city of Athens,” said Frye.
Workers have filed four unfair labor practice complaints with the NLRB since mid-January, alleging in the most recent one that Creature Comforts’ management has made coercive statements and threats to two employees affiliated with the union.
“One union member was suspended [from their job] and escorted off the property,” said Britton, who declined to name them. “The head of HR and two police officers showed up, searched the employee and then escorted them off the grounds. They were not told when they’d be allowed back, and they were told that they can’t talk to any co-workers.”
According to Britton, the two employees are both BUG leaders and the unfair labor practice charge was specifically around management telling the employees not to talk to their coworkers, which would violate NLRB rules around unionizing.
Creature Comforts did not respond to a request for comment. This story will be updated if they do so.